One day in my 20s, several decades ago, I got on a plane in New York City and flew across the world. It was dark when I arrived in Bali, but when I awoke the next day, a young man with a beautiful smile brought me fresh mango and strong tea to enjoy on the terrace of my bungalow. All around, playing amid bright flowers, were little girls with the faces of angels. Within hours, midwinter gloom had been transformed, as if by magic, into tropical sunshine. I was paying two dollars a night for a cottage of my own with a golden beach 45 seconds away, down a fragrant, palm-shaded lane.
I was in Eden, I decided. When night fell, however, I began to hear the clangorous and dissonant sound of gamelan orchestras, eerie, on every side of me. I saw boys with beautiful smiles stabbing themselves with daggers in a ritual dance that re-enacts a legendary battle between black magic and white. The little girls with angel faces were performing their dances while in a trance. Eden, I began to recall, is the place where it’s death to know too much.
All along the dusty streets were masks on sale, in front of dusty shacks. Smiling gods, grinning demons, mythical birds that glared at me so intently I had to hurry past. Finally I came upon a mask of an owl, red and yellow and green, that looked like the perfect thing to take home, an innocuous memento of the enchanted island. As soon as I got back to my apartment on East 20th Street, I put the mask on the wall — and within seconds I had to tear it down and put it away where I’d never see it again. There was a power to the object that reminded me that I couldn’t begin to understand the charged forces all around me on the island. Even what looked to be a child’s plaything was effectively a “No Trespassing” sign.
As a constant traveller for 49 years now, I sometimes feel I’ve been zigzagging from one “paradise” to the next. From Tahiti to Tibet, from the Seychelles to Antarctica, I’ve found tourist posters conspiring with travellers’ hopes to present every place as a kind of Eden. Yet often it’s our very notions of paradise that intensify divisions. In Sri Lanka I’d realised that the island has so often been taken to be Arcadia — Arabs saw it as “contiguous with the Garden of Eden”, and an Italian papal legate announced that the waters of paradise could be there — that the Portuguese, the Dutch, the British and millions of us tourists have all scrambled to grab a piece of it.
In Jerusalem, like every other visitor, I’d been vividly reminded that the city of faith has always been a city of conflict. Not just between the three great monotheisms whose sacred spaces stand only a few hundred yards from one another, but within each one of the faiths. I’m not Muslim or Christian or Jewish, but I’ve seldom encountered a more moving and magnetic site. Day after day I find myself drawn, regardless of my plans, back to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Yet within that soul-shaking building, where Christ is said to have been buried, the six Christian orders that share space go after one another with brooms if one of them so much as steps across another’s territory.
In Kashmir, I’d sat on a houseboat in the sun — nothing to be heard but the sound of kingfishers’ wings above a lotus pond — as locals in little boats paddled past, offering aromatic spices and exquisitely carved small boxes. I was truly in Heaven — so long as I forgot that, minutes across the water, army roadblocks and encampments spoke for the more than half a million soldiers trying to maintain peace in a bitterly contested territory claimed for more than 70 years now by both India and Pakistan. In Ladakh, the kind of pristine Himalayan region that might have inspired the notion of Shangri-La, I discovered more peace and beauty than I dared to dream of — along with local kids who reminded me that the real paradise was that place called California.
Besides, if I really did come upon a calm and self-contained Eden, what would it have to gain from me? I, like any visitor, could only be the serpent in the garden.
One day I found myself standing amid the floating bodies and unceasing roar of the River Ganges in Varanasi, the holy city of Hinduism. Flames to both the north and the south were reducing dead bodies to ash around the clock. The narrow lanes behind me were almost impassable with families rushing corpses along on stretchers to be committed to the water or the fires. Naked ascetics, smeared in ash, were expressing their contempt for simple notions of right and wrong by living in graveyards and drinking from skulls. The holy waters the faithful were gratefully imbibing contained hundreds of times the maximum level of coliform bacteria the World Health Organisation has deemed safe for drinking.
As I surveyed the chaos, I heard someone call my name. It was an American monk I know who would soon be appointed by the Dalai Lama to be the abbot of a Tibetan Buddhist monastery in southern India. When I turned around to greet him, I noticed he could scarcely contain his delight.
“Isn’t it glorious?” I recall him saying. Here was the whole human pageant, vital and human and irreducible. I, though entirely of Hindu blood, was perplexed, unsettled by the confusion; he, from a very different tradition — I’d last bumped into him hurrying along Fifth Avenue — could see that this was none other than the only life we had. All our paradise, our only hopes, had to be uncovered here, in the midst of real life — and in the face of death.
Glorious? Well, it may take me a while to advance to that level of clearsightedness. But if paradise is anywhere, I was coming to see, it couldn’t be anywhere but where I stood.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
Pico Iyer is the author, most recently, of “Half Known Life: In Search of Paradise”.